Oil train explosion in Lynchburg leads to mass evacuations

Roger Annis, Vancouver Observer, May 1 2014 - 12:00

The latest North American oil train crash occurred yesterday, April 30, in the heart of the city of Lynchburg, Virginia. Fourteen wagons of crude oil derailed from a CSX train in the middle of the afternoon.

A city spokeswoman said three or four wagons caught fire. The burning wagons spilled their loads into the James River. The surface of the river was on fire from the oil contamination. A portion of the city center was evacuated.

The James River flows eastward into Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the United States. The bay separates the states of Virginia and Maryland. It is rich in marine life and a recreation mecca. Along the way, the river flows through Richmond, the Virginia state capital. It is 125 miles east of Lynchburg.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports that Richmond officials are preparing to switch the city's water supply away from the James River. Officials are placing booms on the flooded river to contain oil.

Fred Millar is an Arlington County-based consultant on hazardous materials safety, The Times-Dispatch reports he has warned Virginia officials of potential dangers from the transport of crude oil across the state. "It’s difficult to get Virginia to pay attention to this because they don’t think of their being part of the oil patch, but now they are," he said.

"Virginia is being used as a transportation corridor only. We get all of the risks and no benefits."

Trip Pollard, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, says rail shipments go through "heavily populated and environmentally sensitive areas in Virginia."

"We are way behind the curve in assessing the wisdom of such shipments and in preparing to address the potential hazards" he said.

The outgoing chairperson of the National Safety Transportation Board, Deborah Hersman, told the Times-Dispatch, "While the soaring volumes of crude oil and ethanol traveling by rail (have) been good for business, there is a corresponding obligation to protect our communities and our environment."